Some years ago, when my family was young, I had a neighbor with very strong opinions. Strong and often different from my own. Gavriel was warm, generous, devoted to his family, humble before his God, and dedicated to his country. He died suddenly and far too young.
In the years before his death, Gavriel underwent not a spiritual awakening, for he’d grown up observant and believing, but a spiritual deepening. He spent long nights immersed in Hasidic texts and studied Talmud with a black-coated partner from the Bratislaver community. He grew sidelocks and wore longer fringes under his shirt. But he continued to serve in his IDF reserve unit long after the usual age of retirement.
At the memorial service held on the first anniversary of his death, one speaker praised Gavriel for his temimut, a Hebrew word that that, in the Bible, means “whole” and “unblemished.” In modern religious parlance it usually refers to a simple, pure piety, one that harbors no doubts. It was the right word for the occasion, for Gavriel indeed brooked none. He believed with perfect faith in God, the coming of the Messiah, in the justice of Israel’s rule over the West Bank and Gaza Strip and their Palestinian inhabitants, and in the power of his love to make his wife and children happy despite the adversities they faced. He believed these things with such fervor that, in his presence, I was often left speechless, if not convinced.
Were I myself so whole, so tamim, I would have immediately quoted to myself from Psalms 18, “I will be whole [tamim] before him, and keep myself from iniquity.” Or Deuteronomy 18, “Be whole in your faith with the Lord your God.” Or perhaps the first verse of Job: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and the man was whole and upright, and one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
But I didn’t. I thought instead of another poem, and not even one by a Jew. “Glory be to God for dappled things,” my heart sang at Gavriel’s memorial service,
I’m not partial to faith healing and miracle stories. I like to keep my feet on the ground when talking about God. And so does my good friend Anne Hodges-Copple, who serves as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina.
So I was a little surprised when she sent me a recent sermon that centers on what looks ostensibly like a simple story of faith and healing. It happened recently when Anne went on a church mission to Belize, in central America.
Late one night, only about ten days ago, twenty-year-old Rachel woke up in her one room house on the outermost edge of San Mateo, Belize. Her husband and two young sons were still asleep. She looked over the swamp outside the window of the tiny box of a house she and her husband had built from discarded wood planks and scrap metal. Like other rather ramshackle dwellings nearby, her house was built on piles that rose above the soft ground created by filling in the lagoon with a dubious combination of sand and trash. San Mateo was created away from any land that could be valuable to developers and to keep poor workers and their families out of the sight of the thriving tourist industry of San Pedro. Despite the beautiful multi-hued turquoise waters of the Caribbean that surrounds Ambergris Cay, Rachel and her neighbors were surrounded by brackish water, and a ground so lacking in nutrients that the hardiest shrub had a difficult go of it.
Rachel awoke because she sensed something was wrong. As she told the social worker at Holy Cross Anglican School later that day, she felt something invisible move across the swamp and into her home. She felt something dark and sinister blow into the house. She closed the board door across the window. Shortly thereafter her youngest child, three year old Ronan, woke up crying. He called out in a terrified voice that crabs were eating him. Candles were lit and the child examined by worried parents. They could find no evidence of any bites. They could find no physical source of the child’s continued cries. They tried to soothe him, but he remained listless and distressed. Rachel feared that evil spirits had come into her house perhaps, upon her child.
There’s a canard that religious people hear again and again from their non-religious acquaintances: “I’m jealous. It must be such a comfort to be able to believe in God.” They haven’t read Psalm 27, which observant Jews recite twice daily from the beginning of the month of Elul (which began earlier this week) throughout the holiday season that concludes eight weeks later.
The psalm (Read the Hebrew text, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, and hear the Psalm read in the original Hebrew here) belies such a naïve view of the relationship between human beings and God.
Famously, this poem seems to run backwards, if your standard is the assumption that people pray so that their prayers will be answered. It begins with a declaration of confidence in God’s protection, goes on to pleading, then to expressions of loneliness and doubt, and ends with a determined affirmation of God despite the uncertainty the poet sees in the world around him. The disparity of mood is so great that some scholars have suggested that the psalm is actually an amalgamation of two entirely separate works.